Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Boy Wonder

Anyone who has worked with American folk portraiture knows that while portraits in oil and watercolor are plentiful, it is extremely rare to see one in wood. We have had one such portrait in the Fenimore Art Museum collection for many decades, our “Head of a Boy” carved by Asa Ames in 1847 and given to us by Stephen C. Clark in 1955.

This bust has an odd presence about it. It certainly commands your attention when you are in the gallery or storage area with it. It is life size, and the face is so lifelike and the eyes so intense that it can leave you with the eerie feeling that it is somehow alive. The title suggests that we do not know who the subject was, and for many years I resigned myself to never knowing.

That is, until a 2008 exhibition by Stacy Hollander at the American Folk Art Museum in New York, entitled "Asa Ames: Occupation Sculpturing." Stacy gathered together a group of Ames carvings (there aren’t many known – only about 12 – but she managed to assemble 9 really terrific pieces) and presented the artist’s work in the context of his tragically short life (you can view the online catalogue to “Asa Ames: Occupation Sculpturing” here).

Ames worked in western New York State, around Evans in Erie County, carving likenesses of friends and neighbors. He thought enough of his work to list his occupation as “sculpturing” in the 1850 Federal Census (note his fancy carved signature on the underside of the carving). Ames died in 1851 of consumption at the age of just 27.

Despite the lack of biographical information on the artist, Stacy uncovered a stunning new find that, to me, speaks volumes about Ames. It is a photograph of the artist near the end of his life, mallet and chisel in hand, working on a bust that looks like a self portrait. He is surrounded by his sculptures along with other props and, somewhat inexplicably, an unidentified man posing as a sculpted bust at the lower left.
The striking thing about this photo is the resemblance of Ames to our boy. Looking at his profile in the photo, the shape of his face and his hair, and comparing it to our carved bust, makes me wonder if our piece is a self portrait. It’s impossible to say with certainty, and I believe that Stacy thought our bust could perhaps be a sibling of the artist’s if not the artist himself, but the connection has caused me to see our piece in a whole different light than previously.

 One thing’s for sure: it would take a lot of biographical data to equal the value of this photo in enhancing our understanding of the artist.

Artist unidentified; plate marked Scovills (active c. 1839–1850), New York State, 1849–1851, 3 1/4 x 3 3/4 x 5/8 inches. Collection of John T. Ames, Austin, Texas, loaned in loving memory of John T. and LaVeda R. Ames


  1. I love that you posted a pic of the bottom of the sculpture, as we've never seen the mark and date before.

    The self portrait photograph blew my mind when it was first uncovered. I think you're right, the profile and hairstyle are way too close to be anything but him I think.

  2. What a great photo of the carver, especially given the timeframe. So that is what avant-garde looked like in 1850...

  3. Yes, the bottom has never been published, so it was great to have the opportunity to share with scultpure enthusiasts.

    You're both right about the photo. I couldn't believe the resemblance to the artist. What a rare survival!

    Thanks, as always, for your comments.


Blog Widget by LinkWithin